Behind Front Lines: Notes From Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010 at McNally Jackson

Posted by Nick Curley

Here are the trials of the Rookie Blogger, a title right up there with “A Literal Totem Pole’s Intern” or “Junior Secretary to the Orphaned Dog’s Scrotum”.

I leave a copywriting day job for a very popular, mercilessly trite website at 6:50pm, knowing that I will not be paid for services rendered from 5pm on.  This pro-bono time is spent crunching numbers into various Excel spreadsheets: numbers of no bearing to any living soul, numbers that will never be right, fibbed numbers invented long ago by a different weary young person.  These are numbers born to numb: to feed imagined stresses of amphibious marketers who are actually sweethearts when you get to know them, sitting under the dulled fluorescence together, while they wait for the evening’s guaranteed round of Michelobs and the weekend’s promise of a bridal shower and/or paintball massacre.

It’s now 6:50, which means I have only ten nail-bitin’ minutes to get to the event downtown.   An event I must get to for no other reason than because it is a self-imposed assignment, a deadline I gave myself, or better still, one suggested by a colleague.  It is a reading at McNally Jackson, a Nolita independent bookseller hosting soirees of notable variety and frequency.  Judging from their press releases, they also employ some talented writers in their own right.  On last night’s menu were selections from Dzanc BooksBest of the Web 2010, a collection of essays, prose, and poems all initially published on the same information superhighway that unites us here and now.  This was that elusive lifeblood of the Rookie Blogger: a place to cover.  A happening.  Moreover, this was a gig with a hook: “Amateur E-Flaneur Studies the Field’s Bright Young Things”.

With rabid frenzy I hail a cab, which at this hour in Chelsea is able to catch and release fares like brook trout.  We zig in order to zag, turning into the West Side Highway for a passing glance to sidestep the cobblestoned Meatpacking District congestion and hook a straight shot down 14th St.  I tap caffeinated fingers against the leather seats and window to the mild bemusement of the patient driver, to whom I am grateful and never cruel: we are both pounding pavement today, my brother.  I tap, sigh, and in my mind play on a loop a line from Almost Famous, that beacon of novice reporter naïveté: “I’m flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi with America’s hottest band… and we’re all about to die.”  The backseat video screen ticks down minutes until it is 6:58, then 6:59, the meter’s count surging fast.  Red lights changing over look in these moments as green and orgiastic as Gatsby’s.  When we reach Prince Street, I choose to hoof it the rest of the way, and with thanks hand the quicksilver cabbie, he with a voice of a young Belafonte, thirteen dollars and a pinch of pocket change.

Just like that I’m off in a jangling half-bouncing dash down Prince, looking at the address numbers, realizing they’re rising when they should be falling: I curse it all, nearly stumble onto a baby carriage, damn myself for being so rushed and careless, then begin sprinting down the street towards the bookstore, which I know to be near Savoy, the foodie restaurant I’ve never been to but am told is quite good.  Here the looping mind’s quotation shifts from Cameron Crowe to Flaubert’s line about the game: “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.”  I’m flying down the street now to our crisp white destination not far out of reach, fists pumping out my first good jog in days (no time!), before barreling into the shop at 7:03, which to the entrance side is nearly empty, all activity squished into the opposite end.  A phalanx of assorted seats, some oak and others seemingly made of Tupperware, is set behind a podium.  A boyish, soft-spoken puritan who looks like he would be the manager of a clean, well-lighted bookstore now speaks.  On my arrival he’s concluding his statements with the best possible greeting I could hear in this moment of breakneck calamity: “And now, let’s all welcome our readers for this evening.”  I exhale.  Perfectly timed!  We made it, you beauties!  Not an drop of lit juice spilled or wasted!  Cherish and keep the yellow cab, and all who chauffeur it!

The MC for the evening was a four-eyed bugger with straw hair and a drawl that warbles: a drawlble, if you will.  I’m busy congratulating myself with smiley nods for getting here on time, so I don’t catch his name.  More on him later.  First he brings up poet Bryan Baldi, whose work in the anthology first appeared on Matchbook.  He reads three solid poems on three different places.  Montreal is forged in a piece entitled “Ideally Learnt French for Eavesdroppers”.  In speaking to Toronto he praises “your sweet pits of mosh”, adding that “the light mostly goes / these buildings transpire.”  He finds the right mix of critique and whimsy in discussing my native Massachusetts, which I can only guess is primarily an analysis of Cambridge, Boston, or the Metro West stretch out to Worcester.  Of the terrain he writes that it is “plain from the moral stomp… infinite deciding hamlets… possessing of almost a sort of burrito…” before noting it contains “the hideout for folk music” and “passion for the appropriate”.  Baldi reads with some assuredness while standing turned at a slant, digging through his language the way one ventures into the caverns of a bogged sewer.

Next came Elissa Bassist, whose Best of the Web piece entitled “A Baker’s Dozen of My Feelings About David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” ran at V1 comrade The Rumpus. I liked her early line that it was the only book she used to study for the GRE, and enjoyed her recitation of George Saunders’ line spoken at Wallace’s funeral, where Saunders called him “a wake up artist”.  Bassist rightly values Wallace as a virtuoso who still managed to be nice to people, respect his reader, while remaining a polysyllabic renaissance man in many fields of study.  She details an unfulfilled idea for a satisfyingly kissing off her ex, in which she would send him the book and explain that it perfectly encapsulates her sensibility, which said ex will be missing out on henceforth.  A clever idea, and a good summation of what it is to find art that speaks to us and at times even for us.

Rachel Bunting, third up to bat, unfairly suffered a plague of ringing cell phones and in-store chatter.  Behind me, an elderly woman asked the desk clerk if the store carried, I shit you not, Thrasher Magazine.  This request blew me away to a degree that Bunting’s softly delivered poetry did not, though the title of her first piece, “Martha Stewart Claims She’s Been Struck by Lightning Three Times”, brings truth to pastel power.  It is a long title penned in an era of long literary titles.  Lo, how we love our sentence long titles.  I’m not opposed, if their length is funny or otherwise of use.  Nothing in this poem’s depiction of electrocution would otherwise suggest Martha Stewart, save a passing reference to muffins, and so this nice long title helps us along.

The works of Krystal Languell, August Tarrier, and Leigh Stein ran together a bit in their unenviable positioning firmly in the middle of this non-stop hour of raw, unadulterated podium.  The rhythm of Languell’s poems is strong, her repetition of words and alliteration creating a tone to the phrasing that others over the evening lacked.  While her closer about a Houston shopping mall meandered, she aced “Wife to Magritte”, her poem selected for the anthology, taking relative jibba-jabba and turning it to minor gold with pacing that made music of the text.

Tarrier, seemingly the furthest along in years of all the readers, took time in contextualizing the piece “Field Notes”, a short story of a woman encouraging witnesses to her assault to testify.  Reading aloud is hard.  Most don’t understand that it’s a performance, and understanding it isn’t the same as living it.  Like a camera-shy cage fighter with a mean set of chokeholds, Tarrier’s finessed dialogue is hindered by a tedious monotone on the microphone.  Two rows ahead of me, a pompadoured young man, like some hybrid of Elvis and Benjamin Button in a paisley shirt, lets out a huge yawn, looks around nervously, then hangs his head, embarrassed by his own rude wallow.  We shared a look that said, “As men, we should really both be paying more attention.”  Tarrier finished, and it was only then that I realize she’s been sitting in front of me all night.  I catch her sneaking frequent peaks at my notepad, and I’d be lying if I said I did not relish these suspicious glances, as she sizes me up as her scribbling observer just as well as I’d sized her.

Leigh Stein’s poems were acceptable mediations on relationships, sex, and birds.  In the close to a selection of her work on Diagram, Stein wrote “These poems were informed by the film adaptations of Where the Heart Is and The Notebook, Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, R. A. Montgomery’s Return to Atlantis, and the Wikipedia entry on Rusalki. I listened to “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads and the acoustic “Hey Ya” cover by Obadiah Parker while writing them.  If you are heartbroken the best thing to do is write poems and email them to the person who broke your heart because maybe he will break up with his new girlfriend and move across the country with you, which is what actually happened with these.”  These are ruminations on widely digested cultural reference points and bad romance novels, though I will be the last person to rag on “Psycho Killer”, even if it does get overplayed in relation to the rest of the Heads’ oeuvre.

By this point, the crowd needs some cajoling.  We’re digging our toes into the ground, ogling the in-house barista counting tips, and staring at the cover of London Fields, wondering if Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens ever got to second base with each other.  If so, was it cool, kinda gross, or both?  Our rush of blood came in the returned MC, who I later was able to mark on my scorecard as Sasha Fletcher.  On the righteously named Mud Luscious Press, Fletcher has just released a novella entitled When All Our Days Are Numbered Marching Bands Will Fill the Streets & We Will Not Hear Them Because We Will Be Upstairs in the Clouds, a title so long that there’s no room left in this sentence to lampoon it.  Within the span of two short passages, Fletcher nailed a feat unachieved by any of the performers that preceded him, none of whom I’d heard of prior to this evening: he made me want to read his work.  This partially came from a skillful performance: in addition to seeming naturally affable, Fletcher’s learned his own words. He knows when the punchlines are coming, knows the bombastic words to strike, and knows when to get quiet and bluesy so as to reel the crowd in.  In interviews he cites Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Frank Stanford as influences.  But would it be too tacky to suggest notes of Highway 61 Revisited in this wordplay, and worldview of life as a backyard in which wild characters are perpetually roaming?  In drawing the comparison I assure you that I have learned from the mutual demises of Spin and Rolling Stone to not go comparing everyone and their mother to Bob Dylan.  But Fletcher is a mountain lion of the troubadour pride: impassioned, wry, and armed to the teeth with lines like “I ate a bad pork chop / I got the shits” and “She worked the rails, ate a land mine every day” that in this land of lacquered walls and crumbling day-old muffins sound profound in delivery and megaton in size.

The reading quietly ended.  I grabbed a copy of the book off the shelf, ran downstairs, and whisked some last minute info out of it, hunkered down at the basement level of the store in a chair where I’d last sat reading the Proust questionnaire to a gorgeous painter.  I tried to devour as much of the thing as I could in the span of two or three minutes, and could have bummed around looking for a quote.  Yet the willful glory of the self-imposed deadline and an evening of peachy verse urged me back home.  For the first time in too long, the desire to write was fierce, and I knew my blood would feel thick and bothered until I slapped it out of my system.  I cannot recall a more welcome compulsion.


  1. I’ve never seen someone do so much navel-gazing while attempting to cover something.

  2. Glad you found my mediations so acceptable. It’s so hard sometimes to get relationships and sex to reconcile with birds.

  3. I’m going to attempt a recap, if you all don’t mind.

    “I am a frustrated copywriter. Because it is not okay to masturbate in public, I am going to jerk off into my blog. Touching myself this way feels good because it is both self-indulgent & -reflexive, and in doing so, I am able to make other people feel bad, which only adds to my pleasure. People with glasses make me feel uncomfortable. I have read many books; I will demonstrate that here. Oh oh oh oh ah.”

    1. hahahahaha….indeed. I got 2 paragraphs in then realized I was bored. So I stopped. Oh no, simple sentences!

    1. Boring and tired? I suppose Best of the Web and Best of the Net likes boring and tired? Who are you and where have you been published?

  4. Self-indulgent, self-serving and self-important. It also made me start to doze after two paragraphs. Do you need a pat on the back and some milk and cookies to make you feel special, or does being a not-very-professional or well known critic fill that void for you?